The Chrysler 180 encapsulated the confusion, lack of direction and failure to invest in good products that ultimately brought the humiliation of the mighty Chrysler Corporation offloading its European operations to the family run firm Peugeot for a single dollar.
It was a car that could have been a contender but instead it lost every battle it ever fought. As did Chrysler Europe…
The executive white elephant
The Chrysler takeover of Rootes in the UK had interesting effects. In the UK the effects of Chrysler’s injection of money could be seen everywhere. One employee said that the immediate difference between before and during Chrysler’s ownership was that wages went up straight away. The same could be seen in the company’s facilities which were soon to include a brand new design centre at Whitley, just outside Coventry.
On the one hand, Chrysler executives ensconced themselves on the board, but on the other hand the Americans decided to leave the matter of running the company to the British. It was a similar situation to the Rover Group in the aftermath of the BMW takeover in 1994: more money but little pressure for any fundamental changes in the way the company operated. It was not a perfect arrangement, by any means. There was the niggling matter of what to do about the relationship with Simca and how the two companies were to be integrated to form an effective Anglo-French alliance.
Across the channel, in May 1970, Chrysler appointee Harry E. Chesebrough replaced Gwain H. Gillespie as the head of Simca. As of July 1st, 1970, Simca, like Rootes, no longer existed as an independent company. Since acquiring 64% of Simca in 1963, Chrysler now held 99.4% of shares. The company was now, logically renamed Chrysler France, and lost forever its autonomy. The name Simca was removed from the front of the factory and the individual letters, S. I. M. C. A. on the cars began to be replaced with a single, smaller rectangular badge.
The first faltering step towards achieving the goal of an Anglo-French branch of the American Chrysler company was the development of Chrysler Europe’s new executive car. The C Car, as it was called, would be a replacement for the Humber Hawk in the UK and a re-entry into this market sector for Simca after a long hiatus from producing big cars. At the end of the Sixties, the top-of-the-range Simca was the 1301/1501, by then seven years old. In Britain, since the demise of the big Humbers in 1967, half hearted attempts had been made to provide a range-topper with imported Australian Chrysler Valiants.
For the first time, Simca and Rootes were brought closer together by Chrysler management, who felt that shared development would be the way forwards for the company. However, the C car project did not start out this way.
In 1966, Rootes set out on their C Car project, which as Roy Axe, Head of Design at Rootes described was a logical scaling up of the B Car (Avenger) concept. In France, Simca were working on their own large car called Projet 929. As Roy Axe recalls: ‘At the time Simca was working on a similar project and this was being imputed by the Detroit styling office. There were also inputs to the French project by Bertone’.
However, when Chrysler reviewed the situation, it decided that it was a bad situation to have both concerns develop competing cars. The C Car’s programme was a first for Chrysler Europe. Whilst there may have been differing requirements from both companies, there was enough common ground for collaboration to be worthwhile. In early 1969, the British and French design teams presented their proposals to the senior men in Chrysler Europe. The Brits showed a fully specified and costed car whereas the French kept the details secret, simply saying that: ‘ours is cheaper and better’. Senior management chose to cancel the French project in favour of the UK’s C Car proposal but with two versions – one for France and one for Britain. With that settled, Chrysler delegated the detailed development of the new car.
The American Dream Comes to Ryton…
In 1969, Rootes/Chrysler bought a new plant in Whitley on the outskirts of Coventry and progressively moved all research and development from Humber Road into this new facility. The Research Centre’s staff first major project was the styling and development of the C Car.
As a Rootes product, the C Car was to have become three cars – a basic Hillman version, a sporting 2 litre Sunbeam to be known as the Sunbeam 2000 and a top of the line 2500cc Humber Hawk which would sit at the top of the Rootes range. The Humber marque was reasonably well established as a luxury brand thanks to the reputation of the Super Snipe and Hawk models, produced from 1957 until early 1967. There was also a proposal to extend the range further, stretching the C car floor pan to form a D car, which would have been a high flying replacement for the Super Snipe. Styling ideas for the D car were produced by Roy Axe but the project was canned in 1970.
A new 60-degree 2000 and 2500cc V6 engine was developed by the British for the car and the plan was for the V6-powered C Car to be produced in the UK as well as France. However, on the other side of the channel, ‘Big Sixes’ were not financially acceptable in a market that taxed cars by engine capacity and power, so there was no need for this engine in France. A Simca designed four-cylinders would be the order of the day over there. Four 2500cc prototype Humber Hawks were built to evaluate the project as a whole. The V6 engine was also tested in Avenger bodyshells, which were extremely rapid but a tad prone to understeer!
British thoughts of fitting a de Dion rear suspension system a la Rover 2000 were abandoned in favour of a coil sprung live rear axle but MacPherson strut front suspension and four wheel disc brakes did make it through to the final production car. The five speed gearbox fell by the wayside too.
At the new Whitley design centre, the shape progressed. First thoughts included four headlamps and a full width rear lighting assembly. Like the B Car (Avenger), the shape was almost pure Detroit, and the cars looked quite similar. That was down to the influence of Roy Axe: ‘I was Director Design Chrysler UK then & the boss was Gilbert Hunt (now deceased). The project designer was Curt Gwinn, who I had hired in. He was a Chrysler USA designer but not at the time I hired him so he was a genuine UK employee not a transferee. Curt never went back to the USA. He worked for me for quite a time and eventually became the designer in charge of advanced projects for Peugeot in France.’
In early 1970, Chrysler Europe decided to refocus the C car and have just one version, built in France, for both markets. It retained its UK-styling but was given a Simca styled front end. The interior also became the responsibility of Simca. The Rootes flavour of the car was watered down as Simca developed the car. Real wood trim in the cabin, leather seats and air conditioning were all among the casualties. This was a pattern that would be followed in later years with the C6 (Alpine) and C2 (Horizon) programmes, although at the time of the C car the UK operation continued to have considerable engineering input.
The biggest shock, though, was the decision to drop the British designed V6 engine. According to Graham Robson’s book, ‘The Cars of the Rootes Group’: ‘Design was complete and development well on the way, with dozens of prototypes running when, suddenly, at the beginning of 1970, the British end of the project was cancelled. Tooling already being installed at Humber Road for production of the V6 engine was ripped out. The Simca engined car was launched later in 1970’.
Of the £38m set aside to develop the V6 engine, £31m had been spent when the engines were cancelled and the tools and jigs at the Stoke engine plant in Coventry ripped out and either scrapped or converted for other projects. In 1975, Harry Sheron, Chrysler Europe’s Head of Engineering and who had been the top Rootes engineer in 1969, told AUTOCAR: ‘Personally, I am very sorry that the V6 engine was not used. It was a good, smooth, economical, compact unit which could have changed the image of the C7, the Chrysler 180, and made it an even more up market car’.
This was seen as an indication of Chrysler’s increasing unease with the UK operation’s inability to turn a profit. It was also a sad end to the Rootes Group’s successful involvement in the UK’s large car market, but more than that, it proved a hammer-blow to the UK workforces’ and management’s morale, who saw the UK operation being passed over in favour of Poissy.
Launched in Paris…
When the Chrysler 180 range was initially launched in France it met with apathy from most elements of the press. That is not to say that it was a bad car. Technically it may not have been exciting, but it was up-to-date.
The Chrysler 160, Chrysler 160GT and Chrysler 180 were introduced at the Paris Salon in October 1970. They were promoted as being ‘an American from Paris’! They had been known inside Chrysler France as the Simca 1800 project and replaced the Simca 1501 as well as taking the company back into the luxury sector for the first time since the Vedette went out of production a decade before.
All had four cylinder engines with transistorized ignition and an overhead camshaft. Performance didn’t set any records but they were comfortable and robust cars. However, they succeeded in European markets primarily thanks to a rather competitive pricing structure!
The 160 – which was in France’s 9CV taxation band – came with a 1639cc, 80bhp motor and had a top speed of 155km/h. Brakes were discs up front, drums out back. The 160GT and the 180 shared an 1812cc 97bhp motor and a top speed of 170km/h. The former was effectively a larger engined version of the slightly less well trimmed 160. Both 1812cc cars were in the 10CV taxation class and had four wheel disc brakes. Transmission was to the back wheels with a choice of four speed manual or three speed automatic gearboxes. Front suspension was by McPherson struts with rack-and-pinion steering. Rear suspension was by a coil sprung live rear axle.
The British launch followed in early 1971 with just the 180 being offered to British buyers. Chrysler’s very public pull-out of the British end of the C Car did not endear it to commentators, who were still very capable of treating British and ‘foreign’ cars in a totally different way in print.
In MOTOR magazine, Jerry Sloniger came away guarded after giving the 160 and 180 a thrashing at the Montlhery: ‘…the finest feature of this new engine, [was] its very real ability to wind high and sing.’ He continued: ‘It is elastic from 1500 to 6000, an advantage with a sticky gearshift; second proved particularly difficult to locate in a hurry. Handling, as mentioned, was never meant for a soaked race track. Not even radial tyres could properly control strong understeer into the bends and read-wheel breakaway despite an eggshell treading throttle foot. Steering is fortunately precise enough to catch the incipient spin…’
French journalists too confirmed that the new car was not a car for keen drivers although for the long distance motorist, cruising along the autoroutes of Europe, it was a comfortable and relaxing way to travel.
…and sunk in London
In France the new Chrysler-Simca did not sell well at all. The Simca 1501 had remained in production for export markets to use up the stocks of parts but was eventually re-introduced into France in 1974 due to poor Chrysler 160/180 sales! In Britain, the sales story was even worse – it sank without a trace.
At the end of 1972, Chrysler added some pretty chrome strips at the base of the side panes and round the wheel arches. A new type of snap-in metal trim surrounded the windshield and rear window. The power of the Chrysler 180 was increased slightly to 100bhp.
For the 1973 model year, the Chrysler 2Litre was introduced at the Amsterdam Auto Show in 1972, in Brussels in January 1973 and to the lucky Brits in April 1973. This luxurious car was available only with Chrysler’s American Torque-Flite automatic transmission and had a full length vinyl roof and spot lights as standard equipment. It had a 1981cc, 110hp engine and could hit 107mph. Wheel size was one inch bigger than the 180 at 14 inches. A small logo ‘ 2L’ on the rear quarter panel was also added to help people know that the car was indeed the top line European Chrysler. At the same time the 160 and 180 (the 160GT having disappeared), inherited the same wheels and hub caps as the 2 litre. The vinyl roof became an option for the smaller cars.
In 1977, the Chrysler 180 and the Chrysler 2Litre – by then built in Spain – became the Chrysler-Simca 1610 and the Chrysler-Simca 2Litre and for the first time, the Simca badge appeared on the boot lid. However, the pentastar of Chrysler replaced the logos ‘160, ‘180’ or ‘2L’ on the grille. The Chrysler 160 1600cc model became the 1609, had a twin barrel carburettor to up power to 90bhp. The new model numbers associated with Chrysler’s French products at this time were based on a simple formula. The first two digits corresponded with the engine size of the smallest car in any given range. The second two numbers were the actual taxation class given the car by the French authorities. Taxation class was largely based upon engine size. The 1610, which replaced the 180, inherited the equipment of the 2 Litre, including the vinyl roof and long range driving lamps. The 2 Litre automatic did not, however, change its name! And for the British market the 1610 remained the 180… All were equipped with Chrysler’s points free electronic ignition system which was about the biggest single mechanical change made to the car throughout its long and undistinguished life!
By 1978, Chrysler was facing a financial meltdown and decided to retrench to its American homeland. It wanted to get rid of its troublesome European operations as soon as possible. The British end was only surviving thanks to state aid and the French end, while healthier, just wasn’t big enough to succeed against European giants such as Fiat and Volkswagen.
From the new world to the old world…
Lots of informal negotiations took place with a multitude of European manufacturers with the French Renault and Peugeot (who had just bought Citroen in 1974) companies being the most interested. Their interest was encouraged by the French government which didn’t like the idea of the Poissy firm being sold to a foreign buyer. Renault, who had just acquired American Motors Corporation (and who unloaded it in 1987 to Chrysler!) dropped out which left the winner as Peugeot. On May 10th, 1978, an agreement was signed which stated: ‘the Chrysler Corporation transfers all of its interests in its European operations to Peugeot Societe Anonyme’. Peugeot paid one dollar for the mammoth American automaker’s entire European operations. That did, of course, include all the debts and liabilities that went with it. It also included one or two assets…
* Factories in Coventry, Scotland, France and Spain
* The Sunbeam, Horizon, Avenger, Alpine and Solara models
* An image with all the prestige and fizz of a bingo hall.
* And there, at the very bottom of the treasure chest, the plans for Chrysler Europe’s new executive car…
On August 10th, 1978, Chrysler formally transferred all interests in Europe to PSA and on January 1st, 1979, the Americans packed up and left Ryton and Poissy. The directors of Chrysler France were now completely French, presided over by Francors Pessin Pellefier, a Peugeot man since 1968. The British end retained some British directors. On July 10th, 1979, it was announced in France that: ‘Chrysler Europe shall become the Talbot Groupe and that all Chrysler-Simca models (which controlled 11% of the French market) will become Talbot-Simcas’. In Britain, the name change to Talbot was announced at the same time.
In 1979, in France the 1610 received the 1981cc motor with manual transmission. It was not renamed the 1611 which strictly speaking is what should have happened as the bigger engine moved it up into the 11CV tax band. In Britain the 2 Litre was from then on offered with the option of manual or automatic gearbox. The 180 was quietly dropped. During 1979 and 1980 there was some extremely limited ‘restyling’ of the Chrysler. The chrome side trims became thicker and got rubber inserts. The grill had only two chrome strips and the hub caps were replaced by a simplified style.
On January 1st 1980, Chrysler France formally changed its name to Automobiles Talbot and the Chrysler-Simca 1610 and the Chrysler-Simca 2 Litre finally changed to Talbot-Simca. A Talbot badge appeared on the bonnet but the Chrysler pentastar remained in the centre of the grille! Six months later, for the 1981 model year the name Simca was permanently abandoned in France in favour of Talbot. In Britain, the car remained a Chrysler, staying listed as such until it was finally dropped from the price lists in the spring of 1981 when its replacement the Tagora lined up on the starting blocks…
Born to die…
Throughout the ten-year life of the 180 series, there seemed to be no policy to develop or support the car. No effort was made to improve or update its equipment to keep pace with the market. Whereas the Chrysler Alpine/Simca 1307 gained electric windows, central locking and an indicator lamp for the hand brake, the supposedly more upmarket 180 got none of this. This negligence and absence of promotion gave the impression that the 180 was an orphan from the beginning.
The French thought it wasn’t French enough. The British – unhampered by taxation based on engine size – opted for the larger Consul/Granada or the more up market Rover, Triumph and in the latter part of the seventies Audi and Volvo cars. Only the Spanish seemed to have any time for the car and even then it was mainly taxi drivers who bought the car, appreciating its comfortable ride and by then low price.
Interestingly, a fair number were sold to Eastern Europe, where the main competition was the Russian Volga… The Chrysler 180 really did begin and finish its life at the bottom of the automotive heap.
The one that got away…
Sketched by Nigel Garton, this interesting one-off was spotted in the early 1970s: ‘…on one of my trips to Whitley as an Austin Morris Product Planner, carrying out one of the regular vehicle swops which we used to do with rivals, I saw a Two-door 180 driving around! Because of the fairly steep rear window, it looked quite Coupe-ish, but I reckoned it was exactly the same wheelbase and profile as the 4 door. I did this sketch of it for my management…’
With thanks to Roy Axe, Nigel Garton. Written with reference to ‘Cars of The Rootes Group’. by Graham Robson.
Special thanks to Andy Thompson for the masses of additional information…